Laura Poitras at The Whitney Museum, New York
Laura Poitras, ANARCHIST: Power Spectrum Display of Doppler Tracks from a Satellite (Intercepted May 27, 2009), 2016. Pigmented inkjet print on aluminum, 45" x 64-3/4" (114.3 x 164.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist.
Laura Poitras, ANARCHIST: Israeli Drone Feed (Intercepted February 24, 2009), 2016. Pigmented inkjet print on aluminum, 45" x 64-3/4" (114.3 x 164.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist.
Still. Laura Poitras, O’Say Can You See, 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Courtesy of the artist.
Still. Laura Poitras, Bed Down Location, 2016. Mixed-media installation with digital color video, 3D sound design, infrared camera, and closed circuit video. Courtesy of the artist.
Laura Poitras "Astro Noise"
The Whitney Museum, 5.2-1.5.2016
By Laura McLean-Ferris
Laura Poitras’s first solo museum exhibition opens with O’Say Can You See (2001/2016), a work expressing the condition of profound doubt experienced in America and beyond in the days after 9/11. In a dimly-lit room, a hanging screen shows close-up footage of faces as they respond to the site of the Twin Towers in the days following their destruction. Fingers are pressed over lips and brows flickeringly furrow, portraying what reads as a series of expressive error messages, an inability to process the given data. The reverse screen shows US military footage of the interrogations of prisoners Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdan. Bags are put on heads, the same questions are repeated over and over, and suffering bodies are treated as though they were simply fleshy storage devices for information. Poitras’s treatment of this footage allows access to a comprehensive void, one that would quickly be filled by demands for retribution, waged wars, and numerous forms of political and human abuse. It is disorientation and confusion, the work suggests, that create the conditions for abuse, whether in the violent short-term or the insidious-long term.
After this entry point, no other work in the show approaches the same level of critical and affective depth. It seems that Poitras has tried to fit her journalistic practice into a perceived museological/institutional context. This is certainly the case with Disposition Matrix (2016), an expanded form of research which builds to little thesis. The work consists of a series of documents relating to surveillance and torture that are only partially visible through letterbox slots, thereby evoking something “hard to see”. Arguably, the advantage of this approach is that it provides a general public with a physical space to spend time thinking abut these issues. But unfortunately it also muddies Poitras’s deft hand with drama on film.
In Bed Down Location (2016), footage of night skies where drone wars are carried out is installed on the ceiling. Viewers are invited to lie on their backs and watch or imagine this secret warfare. The directive to lie down is forced and stagey, and later in the exhibition it will be revealed that there are heat-seeking cameras trained on this room. This “reveal” is presented beside a screen showing a live feed of information collected from the WiFi signals on visitors’s smartphones. Unfortunately these only convey a vague form of spookiness. There’s no question that Poitras is making important work, but in her exhibition the powerful stories that she has the ability to tell just drip through the space in fragments.—
Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in New York.